Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How "text-to-self" connections might backfire--big time

Text-to-self connections are highly personal connections that a reader makes between a piece of reading material and the reader’s own experiences or life. An example of a text-to-self connection might be, "This story reminds me of a vacation we took to my grandfather’s farm."
So explains the Florida Online Reading Professional Development site, a site dedicated "to providing quality professional development services and support to Florida educators in effective reading instruction through its online course, expert staff, quality resources, and other professional development services."

The ability to make text-to-self connections, FORPD states, is part of what distinguishes good readers from poor ones (emphasis mine):
Good readers draw on prior knowledge and experience to help them understand what they are reading and are thus able to use that knowledge to make connections. Struggling readers often move directly through a text without stopping to consider whether the text makes sense based on their own background knowledge, or whether their knowledge can be used to help them understand confusing or challenging materials. By teaching students how to connect to text they are able to better understand what they are reading (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). Accessing prior knowledge and experiences is a good starting place when teaching strategies because every student has experiences, knowledge, opinions, and emotions that they can draw upon.
The cognitive science literature, however, suggests that text-to-self advocates may have it exactly backwards. 

Consider, for example, a paper by Courtnay Norbury and Dorothy Bishop entitled "Inferential processing and story recall in children with communication problems: a comparison of specific language impairment, pragmatic language impairment, and high functioning autism." This paper finds inferencing difficulties characterizing all poor readers with the above conditions. What Norbury and Bishop find, however, isn't that these readers weren't able to make inferences, but that they made the wrong ones.  For example, when asked, in reference to a scene at the seashore with a clock on a pier,  "Where is the clock?", many children replied "In her bedroom."

Norbury and Bishop propose that these errors may arise when the child fails to suppress stereotypical information about clock locations based on his/her own experience.  In support of this hypothesis, they cite Morton Gernsbacher's book Language Comprehension in Sentence Building, which provides evidence that adults with poor reading difficulties are less able to suppress irrelevant information. As Norbury and Bishop explain it (emphasis mine):
As we listen to a story, we are constantly making associations beween what we hear and our experiences in the world. When we hear "clock," representations of different clocks may be activated, including alarm clocks.  If the irrelevant representation is not quickly suppressed, individuals may not take in the information presented in the story about the clock being on the pier. They would therefore not update the mental representation of the story to include references to the seaside which would in turn lead to further comprehension errors.
Text-to-self connections, in other words, may be the default reading mode, and not something that needs to be taught. What needs to be taught instead, at least where poor readers are concerned, is how not to make text-to-self connections.

I'm neither a reading specialist nor a cognitive scientist, but my gut feeling is that, while accessing general background knowledge helps with reading comprehension, accessing personal background knowledge does indeed lead you astray. Text-to-world, OK, fine; but not text-to-self.

Especially, I imagine, for those most entrenched in the self, for example, children on the autistic spectrum.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

This is so typical of the modern educational complex--they've taken out explicit phonics instruction and high-content material, the two things that actually teach a child to read. And then the thing that they pick to substitute for those efficacious things is not just a massive waste of time, but is actually training kids in a damaging and wrong-headed practice. It's not enough to waste the kids' lives--they have to actually teach them negative cognitive habits, too.